Poets in Profile: Helen Guri
Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.
The best poetry takes us places we never thought we'd go, and the poems in Helen Guri's debut collection, Match (Coach House Books), are as quirky and astonishing as their point of departure: a man, Robert Brand, has given up on women in favour of the 110-pound fully operational sex doll he's ordered over the internet. "For its apparently effortless metaphorical reach, I'd call this a page-breaker or a book, as long as you understood we're talking praise here, not iconoclasm," says Don Coles. "Have I read a first collection as good as this since the century's turn? I have not."
Helen Guri will launch Match at the Coach House Spring 2011 Launch at Revival on Wednesday, April 27th. Visit our Events page for more details.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
Very early in my life, when I still planned to become a veterinarian, an adult stranger asked me the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We were on a ski lift together.
Believing that the short form of “veterinarian” was “veteran,” this is what I answered, to the stranger’s astonished silence. I was maybe seven years old.
The embarrassment of this mistake, when I later realized it, ruined me for the care of small animals, and, as the stranger’s reaction had suggested, I was not a particularly likely candidate for the military. This left poetry. I was, after all, uncommonly good at confusing words.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
Children’s books — even when not, strictly speaking, poetry — often have a poetic sensibility. My mother used to read to me from a Danish children’s book about two dental bacteria who design and build elaborate homes in an eyetooth and a molar, respectively. The eyetooth house was said to have a superior view.
But the first real poem that I clearly remember being affected by (which is not to say it was the first to affect me) is Michael Ondaatje’s “Elimination Dance,” which I stumbled across in a bookstore when I was 14 or 15 and carried with me everywhere for years afterward.
What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?
I believe poetry is very much a product of its time and place, and since I am unwilling to live in a time or place without advanced dental care — and am, in fact, unwilling to sacrifice even a few months of advances in dental care — the poem I wish I had written is hot off the press: “Mornings with the Ove GloveTM” by Linda Besner, from her collection The Id Kid.
It’s a glorious little ditty. Here is how it opens:
Encased in the new five-fingered Nomex shield
recently lost to the Space Race and run aground
in the suburbs, I stand before the mirror and soothe
my flyaway hair with the om comb.
In the kitchen, I reify a slice of toast with am jam, watch
from the window as the neighbourhood id kid
takes one giant leap and clears the fence.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
I don’t really know how to answer this question because all inspiration strikes me as unlikely. There I am, in an Etobicoke parking lot, on a break from a temp job as a provincial test grader, staring up at a giant, hideous tower of uncertain purpose that resembles, in the words of a friend, God’s stick-shift, and, well, there it goes.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
Poems that don’t work, or don’t work in the way I want them to, are about as persistent and prolific as a rodent infestation. Once, I lived in a house that had a multi-generational family of 18 skunks living under the back deck.
I tried to get rid of them by various methods of harassment: a metronome, a transistor radio tuned to static, garlic-chili spray, mothballs rolled surreptitiously into the den. Nothing worked.
Then one morning I watched as a continuous conveyor belt of skunks — moms, dads, babies — proceeded to empty the nest of mothballs in a very systematic fashion. Each skunk took a single mothball in its mouth and buried it somewhere near my neighbour’s compost, then looped back for another. I had no doubt that plans were already afoot to tune the radio to something more listenable.
If you’ll forgive the tortured metaphor, poems that don’t work are something I think every poet lives with. Sometimes they surprise you.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I read a lot of books of poetry, often simultaneously and in a dabbling fashion that leaves me confused as to which one I finished last. And I often peel my socks off when I read — it is one of my gross writerly habits.
That said, I lost all kinds of clothing when I read Jen Currin’s Hagiography (Coach House Books, 2008) and Heather McHugh’s Upgraded to Serious (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) back in the fall (or was it the fall before?). Holy mackerel.
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
The best thing is counting Tomas Tranströmer among my co-workers. The worst thing, with all due gratitude to my publisher and to the government granting agencies that have occasionally sustained me, is the pay.